Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Time in a One-Toilet Town

We wouldn't want to get too far above ourselves, so this past weekend we took a wee break from the drudgery of house-building and mud-farming for a holiday in a one-toilet town.

We were headed to Muscongus Island, a small (3 miles by one mile) island in Midcoast Maine. Our friends Julia and Fred, of Castlebay, helped us get the gig--the job of preparing and leading worship for this wee island "community" the morning after a Castlebay-led ceilidh on the deck of one of the summer residents' homes. This island no longer boasts any year-round residents--the last one left more than a generation ago--but the older Summer Folk can still recall many of the permanent residents, their ways of life and their stories.

The island has some odd dynamics. It is an ever-changing collection of people who live in close proximity yet rarely think of themselves as a community. There are no electrical lines, no televisions, no paved roads and no land-line telephones. (Actually, they tried to install a telephone system several years ago, but it never quite worked. You can still find remnants of the wire decaying along the tractor-paths that connect some of the more remote houses.) The island--until very recently--also had no flush toilets.

Everyone still proudly uses their outhouses except one Mr. Plimpton, who first earned the other residents' scorn by gutting a historic island house of its ornate decor to make way for modern decor. He then used his lawyerly skills and deep pockets to acquire permits, bring over heavy equipment and materials, and install the island's first flush toilet and septic system.

The other Summer Folk responses ranged from disgust to righteous indignation. By tacit agreement, they had abided by the common understanding of minimal impacts and respect of limited resources. They had invested in solar lights to cut down on their use of kerosene. They were careful to pack out all their trash...but Mr. Plimpton, apparently, couldn't trouble himself to abide by Island Common Sense.

As I prepared for the weekend on the island, I wrestled with my sermon. What could I say? After all, I was just another non-islander, another Person From Away. It was Julia who suggested I think in terms of other islands--the islands I've visited in Scotland, and the island, far to our west, on which I grew up. That was helpful-- every island has some sort of resource-use issue. Every island copes with the tension of building and maintaining a sense of community. But I still figured I'd have to go off-lectionary.

The Common Lectionary is a three-year ecumenical cycle of Bible readings designed to expose congregations to the vast majority of the Bible's themes, books, and important stories. Each week's readings include a reading from the Old Testamant/Hebrew Scriptures, Something from the Book of Psalms, Something from one of the Gospels, and a reading from one of the New Testament Epistles. Usually I try to stick to the lectionary readings--it's a good discipline, a sort of "writing prompt" for preachers. The weekly challenge is to find, in the assigned readings, something that speaks to a news item or community issue, and then craft a sermon that reflects honest engagement with the historical texts in light of our contemporary situation(s).

I figured I'd have to go off-lectionary for sure--what could a two-thousand-year-old collection of letters, poems and stories possibly say to a bunch of islanders in 2009 who were upset about a flush toilet? Well, might as well read the lectionary list for this week before I get on with the work... HAH! What I found were a bunch of people stuck in the wilderness together, worried about their food supply, and an early church congregation arguing over the relative value of each other's gifts. As they say, "That'll preach." (Readings may be found here. I used the readings from Exodus 16 and Ephesians 4.)

The piper and I arrived on the island Saturday evening by small power-boat. We weighed down the three-bench boat with unusual cargo: a fiddle, a guitar, Great Highland Bagpipes, Scottish Smallpipes, assorted flutes and whistles, bags of food and clothing, a large Celtic harp, three musicians, one preacher, and one very nervous farmdog. There were folks waiting at the dock to haul all our gear up the hill through the deep, dark mud created by a summer of unusually heavy rain. We set up for the ceilidh on the deck and enjoyed a lovely summer evening: music, potluck snacks, and an after-ceilidh supper at the home of the island's spry 85-year-old historian.

Sunday morning dawned with sweet birdsong and pearly light. The Piper and I had slept in the parsonage attached to the island church--our room was right next to the belltower. As instructed, I pulled the rope and rang the bell at fifteen minutes to nine to call the islanders to church. The Piper was poised and ready outside. As soon as I finished ringing the bell, she struck in her pipes and played in the thickening mist as the islanders made their way along the footpaths. Children were carried on shoulders. Dogs came as well, too rambunctious to tell if they were wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting collars and leashes.

After the welcome and announcements and prayer of invocation, we had a hymn sing. People called out suggestions and a woman jumped up and offered to play the piano as we sang a few verses of each favourite hymn. As they opened their mouths and sang out the first hymn, such a glorious blend of strong voices and sweet harmonies arose--such a joyful noise in such a dear wee kirk! I felt deeply blessed by the Spirit moving in that place.

A young woman from the congregation read the first Bible reading, and I read the second. Next came the sermon:


It was a summer Sunday like this one, the air heavy with moisture and salt, no other cars on the roads, just the rise and fall of the ancient stone hills before us. We were in Scotland. We had just finished a week on the island of South Uist at a traditional music school. Now, with another student, we had rented a car to spend the weekend exploring the rest of the Outer Hebrides. It had seemed like a great idea-- pack four musicians and all their gear into a station wagon, grab food along the way, and wander merrily wherever we wanted.

Our traveling companion was fascinated by standing stones, and since he was our driver, we happily agreed to let our path be plotted by the locations of significant stones. Saturday had gone well enough-- we'd meandered through empty fields, along sheep paths and near low stacks of drying peat, to stand in front of this or that ancient monolith, used for nobody-knew-quite-what. It was a lovely diversion, and we'd been well-fortified by a full Scottish breakfast at a bunkhouse on the island of Harris.

Saturday afternoon, we headed north to the Isle of Lewis, my father's ancestral stomping grounds. The plan was to reach the biggest town, Stornoway, by nightfall, then spend the entire next day heading from one great stone wonder to the next, including the great stone-age fort called the Carloway Broch and the ancient circle of stones at Callanish.

Somehow, though, we'd missed a crucial bit of information. People had warned us, but we hadn't quite believed it. “Fill up your tank the night before; Lewis is closed on Sundays.” We didn't quite realize what it would mean. Lewis, it turns out, is a stronghold of conservative Protestant devotion, and when they keep the Sabbath, they really keep the Sabbath—to the point of padlocking the swings in the public parks.

The morning was beautiful. We went to the lighthouse, dipped our toes in the other side of the Atlantic on a wee white-sanded beach, and watched endangered seabirds wheel above the ledges of some of the oldest rocks in the world. We romped through the remains of thousand-year-old fort. We polished up the last of our crackers and cheese and looked forward to afternoon tea at the Callanish visitors' centre, complete with a view of the standing stones.

But the visitors' centre was closed. The grocery store in the next town was closed. The petrol stations and convenience shops were closed. Even on a summer weekend, even at the height of the tourist season, Everything Really. Was. Closed.

We kept driving, bellies grumbling and growling, scanning the wide expanse of peat bogs and lichen-encrusted stones that reached to the horizon, hoping less and less for another picture-perfect monolith, hoping more and more for a convenience store around the next bend... Our panic continued to rise as the light faded from the sky. We realized we'd misunderstood the rules, misinterpreted our guides. We wanted bread. The island offered us nothing but stones.

Then we remembered Maggie. Maggie was a classmate of ours at the traditional music school. She'd introduced herself as a local girl—she lived on Harris. In the friendly, welcoming way of the Highlanders, she'd invited us to drop by. “Especially if you're there on the Sabbath;” she had said, “You'll need a home-cooked meal then.” Her remark had seemed oddly pointed at the time, but we understood her meaning now, all too well. We rummaged through our packs and found a copy of the school contact list. Tired and hungry and unsure of ourselves, we put in a call to Maggie.

“Och, sure! You're just doon the road! Come, then, the lot of ye! I've got supper on the stove.” One slight wrong turn and twenty minutes later, we were on her doorstep. She ushered us in with exclamations of welcome and genuine delight, took our jackets, offered us tea, and showed us to the kitchen, where dinner was indeed on the stove: four enormous dishes, heaped with food, cooked the day before, the pilot light's heat just barely enough to give them a hint of warmth. She had made this enormous feast the day before, so as not to trouble herself with the work of cooking on the Sabbath. There were bashed neeps with butter and curried rice salad with apricots. There was a platter of cold sliced meat and a tray with bread and cheese. It looked like enough to feed a village—certainly more than Maggie's small household, more than enough for them and four hungry musicians.

Maggie's hospitality startled us, dazzled us, and moved us deeply. She had known us only a week, and then mostly in passing. Yet here was this feast, and afterwards the demand that we put up our feet by the peat fire, rest a while, and share some tea. Her unqualified, whole-hearted welcome fluttered around us like a flock of quail landing in the wilderness, like manna in the desert. Here was pot-luck beyond our wild imaginings, canceling out all our fears of scarcity.

Islanders or desert wanderers, we all move with the burdens of hunger and fear. For the Israelites, it was the fear that their resources would not be sufficient to nourish their whole community. On Lewis, we faced a similar, though far less drastic, fear.

The island where I grew up has its own community struggles. Our island, unlike yours, has no bedrock. It is merely a pile of silt and gravel, the remnant of a glacier that got tired. To the executives and engineers of a mining company, all that pre-crushed rock made our island the perfect source of raw materials for all manner of lucrative clients, near and far away. They threatened to take a portion of the island—including protected shoreline and sensitive woodlands--by Eminent Domain in the name of Public Works.

We raged. We whispered. We made phone calls and wrote letters. We gossiped, prayed, and picketed. We raised such a stink that the county commissioners, engineers, and other highly-placed personages made their way from the mainland to the island. The cause became a celebrated one.

I wish I could tell you that we won, flat out. But real life rarely wraps things up so neatly. Nobody got exactly what they wanted. In the process, though, something has changed on the island. We've learned to be clear with each other. We've learned to work together—farmers, lawyers, schoolkids and grandparents, mechanics and politicians—to understand what matters most to us, what makes the island such a vital, precious and important place.

It remains to be seen whether all those tons of gravel will be pulled from that particular lump of earth. In the meantime, we have sowed seeds of good stewardship, and we have begun to reap a harvest of wisdom. As Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians,
“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way... into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.”

Speak the truth in love-- how hard that is, when anxiety and frustration—and even righteous indignation—crowd out compassion from our hearts. And how hard it is to grow together, to find some all-too-uncommon Common Ground. On Lewis, that place of ancient stones, they wrestle with the decision to run ferryboats on Sundays, raising the fear that this will cheapen and weaken this tiny stronghold of Sabbath Rest. Here on Muscongus Island, you have your own struggles with resources, your own hard quests for Common Ground. But you also have sources of wisdom, strength and nourishment. You have auctions, workdays, and wonderful potluck feasts!

On the old agricultural calendar, today marks the beginning of Lammas or Lunasdal: the harvest season. On the Isle of Lewis, as on the Scottish mainland, it was a time to honor those who laboured in the fields. Bread and beer-- gifts of grain and the fruit of the earth—were shared in abundance. It was a kind of communion. There were toasts to praise workers and landowners both, ways to honour the well-rooted and the drifters. Although most of us no longer till the fields with our own muscles and sweat, the memory of these things is powerful—so powerful that the Common Lectionary, the shared cycle of bible readings heard in churches around the world, offers on this particular Sunday a plate full of manna, fresh harvests, heavenly bread.

Here, on this small island, on this particular lump of stone and earth, our fieldwork awaits. Let us ask ourselves and our neighbors: what shall be our harvest? What nourishment will we share with others, to keep the Spirit's gifts moving among us? What manna will we gather, together, in this place?

Manna, indeed: for the rest of our stay, we were invited to share meals and hailed cheerfully on the footpaths. We shared more stories and savoured the hospitality of many...and used more than one of the island outhouses, each decorated thoughtfully and distinctly. Farmdog, Piper and I roamed the island's beaches with our friends. I swam in the cool saltwater. We read books from the island library by solar flashlights after dark. It was a time of renewal, a time of nourishment for body and mind and soul. We've even been asked back for another Summer Sunday, next year!


Mama Pea said...

Please keep sharing your sermons with all of us.

Noni said...

Ah, Holly, that filled up a place in me I did not know was empty, tying together your world and mine, your heart and mine. Thank for "taking me with you" on this weekend adventure.All so beautifuly said!


Songbird said...

This meant a lot to me, thank you for it.